#MapMonday: Orcas

There are fewer than 73 southern resident orcas left in the wild, and the ones that remain are full of pollution. Join Mae and Robb, our Northwest Representative, in learning about this highly endangered species, the threats that it is facing and what you can do to help.

Explore the storymap: dfnd.us/orcastorymap

Learn more about orcas: dfnd.us/orca

Check out the Orcas Love Raingardens program: orcasloveraingardens.org

Click to view video transcript

Hey there everybody and welcome back to another Map Monday!

Today I am joining you to talk a little bit about a species that needs our help now more than ever. Believe it or not, they are members of the dolphin family and are one of the most endangered species in the United States.

You may be familiar with this “killer” species from one of our first Map Mondays, but if you haven’t guessed by now I’m talking about the incredible southern resident orcas!

Despite their reputation as fierce hunters in the marine world, the southern residents are disappearing at an alarming rate due to a lack of their main food source: healthy chinook salmon.

The southern resident orcas can be found along the west coast of the United States and Canada - from central California all the way up to British Columbia.

Wherever the chinook salmon are, the orca is sure to follow.

Defenders’ orca coexistence work has focused on a very special area within this range that all three southern resident orca pods, or family groups, return to at least once a year: the Salish Sea. The Salish Sea is the region of coastal waterways tucked up in northwestern Washington state and southern British Columbia. It includes the Puget Sound, which is an inlet of the Pacific Ocean that runs down alongside major cities such as Seattle and Tacoma, Washington.

Rapid development and urban sprawl in the region has increased the leading source of pollution in the Salish Sea: stormwater runoff.

Many salmon spawn in rivers and streams that feed into this body of water, exposing both the orcas and their primary food source to this toxic threat.

Every time it rains, all the chemicals on roads, buildings, and lawns are mixed together in a toxic soup that flows straight to the Salish Sea and eventually, the ocean. This degrades habitat, kills salmon, and makes orcas sick. In fact, the Puget Sound Chinook salmon are the most polluted Chinook on the west coast, which is why the southern residents are some of the most polluted marine mammals in the world.

To address this threat, Defenders has partnered with several other organizations to create the Orcas Love Raingardens program, which is currently based in Tacoma, Washington.

This program organizes groups of volunteers and students in local public schools to create and maintain raingardens, which are bowl-shaped gardens that capture, filter, and clean stormwater runoff before it reaches the Salish Sea.

The current goal of the program is to provide all Tacoma Public School students and their families with access to educational, interactive raingardens that can help teach them the importance of green infrastructure in protecting orcas.

The program hopes to one day expand to other coastal cities in western Washington, like Bellingham, Everett, Edmonds, Seattle, and Olympia.

Our Northwest Representative, Robb Krehbiel, is especially active in our Orcas Love Raingardens program and can often be found building raingardens with students across Tacoma. That is, of course, when he’s not in his backyard working on a raingarden of his own.

Let’s take it over to Robb to learn more!

It would be hard to imagine the Salish Sea without the southern resident orcas, but sadly, this population has been sliding closer to extinction every year.

In 2018, people across the Northwest were heart broken when a mother orca carry her dead calf for 17 days.

There’s a lot that we need to do to save these orcas from extinction, like remove dams and restore habitat, but one thing everyone can do is plant a raingarden.

Through the Orcas Love Raingardens program, Defenders and our local partners have been able to reach over 500 students at 11 schools here in TacomaDefenders and our local partners have been able to reach over 500 students at 11 schools here in Tacoma to help them install and maintain raingardens either on campus or at a nearby park.

By working hands-on with students, we hope to inspire people to install their own raingardens, like I did here in my backyard.

Anyone can install a raingarden to protect orcas from polluted stormwater runoff. Together, we can all do our part to coexist alongside orcas.

Thanks Robb, and keep up the great work!

If you want to learn more about Defenders’ efforts to coexist with the southern resident orcas and our work with Orcas Love Raingardens, check out our story map. You can also go on the Orcas Love Raingardens website to find tips and tricks for installing a raingarden in your own home. Remember, even if you don’t live by the ocean, toxic runoff is still a major issue near any body of water, be it a freshwater stream, lake or ocean, so no matter where you are a raingarden is sure to help keep our water clean for all marine and freshwater species. Thanks for watching, stay safe, and happy mapping!

Mae Lacey
Previous Conservation GIS Analyst

As the previous Conservation GIS Analyst in the Center for Conservation Innovation, Mae provided support and leadership for geospatial product development across Defenders.